200 Years After Jane Austen

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 18, 2017

[To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death Book Riot devoted today to all Jane Austen essays, my contribution was “Who Jane Read, Who Read Jane.”]

Isn’t Jane Austen a writer for ladies who love romance stories? What kind of appeal can she have for a 65-year-old male with no interest in young women finding Mr. Right? This past week I watched films based on all six of Jane Austen novels with combinations of four different female friends. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but I’m not sure I enjoyed them for the same reasons my lady friends did. I have read four of her novels, and parts of several biographies.

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra AustenI wished I had read Jane Austen when I was a boy because I would have been much less clueless about girls. However, I’m not sure I could have liked her novels for the same reasons I do now. And I’m not sure I was a savvy enough teenage boy to decode their characters to understand how the opposite sex thought. I didn’t discover Jane Austen until 13 years ago when I was 52 and read Pride and Prejudice because a lady friend at work praised it so highly.

I’ve been attracted to Jane ever since. Jane died in 1817, at age 41, having never married. She is sexy to me now because of her writing skills. We know very little about Jane except for what comes through in six novels, about 160 letters that were heavily censored by her surviving sister Cassandra, and three scrapbook volumes of unpublished work now called her juvenilia. All of this has been collected in a $1.99 Kindle edition called The Complete Works of Jane Austen – a handy way to carry Jane around in your smartphone.

Jane Austen imaginedPeople still argue over what Jane Austen even looked like. The drawing above was made by her sister Cassandra, with some relatives claiming after Jane’s death that it wasn’t a particularly good likeness. The drawing on the left was found in recent years and was assumed to be an imagined version of what she looked like, but many fans hope because it’s old enough, to be a drawing of Jane while she lived.

Which brings us back to why I love to read Jane. I’m driven by the mystery of figuring out who she was. She wrote six books that after two centuries is still growing her fan base, already in tens of millions, maybe hundreds. Any writer should envy that. I say she’s tied with Charles Dickens as the most remembered English novelist of the nineteenth century. Understanding why their work survives when so many others haven’t, fascinates me.

I figure less than 100 novels from any country are still popularly read and remembered today from the nineteenth-century. That begs the question: Why? In Jane’s day, Sir Walter Scott was the Stephen King/J. K. Rowling/James Patterson best selling author. Who reads Scott today? Why do we see stories on Masterpiece by Austen and Dickens reproduced over and over again? If we knew could today’s writers apply that knowledge to write books that would be popularly loved in 2317?

The films of Jane Austen seemed aimed at Regency romance fans, but I’m not sure that’s the kind of audience Austen expected. After her death, her family worked hard to censor the memory of Aunt Jane. Some conjecture has claimed she wrote over 3,000 letters. I wished we had them because I believe we’d have the real Jane. It’s a shame WordPress didn’t exist back then. I get the feeling from some of the clues that Jane was a funny sharp-tongued woman that might have had a lot to say about her world, but was held back by family, church, and publishing propriety. Her juvenilia hints at a more zany, even vicious Jane. In some ways, she reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who loved blood and thunder stories as a girl.

What we do get in the novels is a keen observer of people and society, and Jane would have been an excellent psychologist or sociologist. My mental map of nineteenth-century England comes from novelists, not historians. And I believe the everyday history included in their novels is a major trait of Austen’s and Dickens’ success. I have no interest in reading about the Napoleonic Wars which was concurrent with Jane’s stories. Some critics shame Jane for not being interested too, but I find her peripheral view of soldiers and sailors at home more interesting.

In the past two weeks, The New York Times has run two articles on textual analysis of Jane Austen and her word usage: “Charting Literary Greatness with Jane Austen,” and “The Word Choices Explain Why Jane Austen Endures.” Austen’s six novels stood out in their graph, away from all the other novels charted. (Strangely, they left out Dickens – I wonder why?)

Because of the anniversary of her death, there’s much being written about Jane. Just look at this Google search limited to the recent week. I’m sure this Jane Austen mania is invisible to most people, but for her fans, it only validates why she’s worthy of being remembered.

When I read Jane I delight in comparing then and now. Of course, Jane’s upper middle-class characters peeking inside manor houses totally ignores how ninety-five percent of England lived back then. Dickens trounced Jane at covering the full socio-economic spectrum. However, Jane covers a preindustrial time before Dickens. Jane was born the year before America declared independence and died the year before Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus. Her novels have almost exclusive rights to that specific period of literary history. Whereas Dickens is working the same territory as the Brontës, Thackery, Trollope, Collins, and others. There were plenty of English novelists during the Regency period, but we don’t read them today.

Anyone who is a fan of Downton Abbey should be a fan of Jane Austen because that TV show chronicles the death of a lifestyle that Austen wrote about. The reason why the Crawley family had to leave their estate to a distant cousin is the same reason why the Bennets had to leave their home to Mr. Collins. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham is pretty much a Mr. Darcy a century later who had to marry a rich American woman instead of a local Elizabeth Bennet.

I’m not an Anglophile, but to enjoy reading English novels means learning English history. Austen and Dickens anchor me in nineteenth-century England in the same way Twain and Alcott put me in nineteenth-century America, or Tolstoy lets me see nineteenth-century Russia. Their novels help me understand nineteenth-century art and art history, the time of my favorite paintings. Jane’s novels help me to appreciate on a deeper level historical novels like The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Yet, there’s another reason why I love Jane Austen novels. In the 1960s I grew up reading 1950s writers and stories. Over time I realized my favorite writers had favorite writers, and those writers had writers who inspired them. Many writers today can trace their literary genealogy back to Jane Austen. Over a lifetime of reading, I’ve been slowly studying a family tree of fiction. That gives me a great deal of pleasure.

Finally, reading Jane gives me Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot. Fictional females are extremely important to understanding the history of women and the evolution of feminist thought in our culture. By reading novels, we can see how free women were in their times, from Elizabeth Bennet to Caroline Meeber to Lady Brett Ashley to Janie Crawford to Esther Greenwood to Isodore Wing to Ifemelu to Offred/June.


2 thoughts on “200 Years After Jane Austen”

  1. Mark Twain was NOT a fan of Jane Austen:

    ” I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
    – Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

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